Interview with Don Briel, of Minnesota-based University
of St. Thomas
ROME, 27 MARCH 2003 (ZENIT).
Catholic colleges and universities, particularly in the United
States, continue to struggle with the question of their identity,
especially since the publication of the apostolic constitution "Ex
Some have gone farther than others in embracing the secular model and
aims of the university, while a flurry of new Catholic colleges and
alternative institutions have arisen in response to this phenomenon of
One school, the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, started
the first "Catholic Studies" program in 1992 to offer students
a comprehensive Catholic education shaped by the broad Catholic
Now a department with undergraduate and graduate programs, Catholic
Studies enrolls 160 undergraduate majors and 30 minors. The experiment
has inspired dozens of other programs around the country.
During a recent visit to Rome, Don Briel, founder and director of the
Center for Catholic Studies at St. Thomas, spoke with ZENIT about the
rise of such programs.
Q: Could you briefly describe the concept of "Catholic
Studies" and tell us how the idea for the program came about? Why
is this type of academic program needed at a Catholic college or
Briel: The idea of Catholic Studies emerged in the early 1990s out of a
concern that undergraduates at Catholic universities seemed to lack
access to a comprehensive study of a rich and complex Catholic
Of course, there were many courses in theology, philosophy and history
which introduced students to disciplinary perspectives on Catholic life
and thought. But the increasing specialization of academic departments
made it less and less likely that students would be able to gain a broad
sense of the tradition as a whole.
We found a new generation of Catholics who had begun to realize that
they had been deprived of a rich and noble intellectual tradition. We
had also been struck by the variety and depth of their intellectual
interests. We confronted a generation of students suspicious of narrow
Catholic Studies programs remind both students and faculty of
Catholicism's claim that it might engage, and indeed transform, all
areas of intellectual inquiry from the arts to the social sciences, to
business and to law, to medicine and to politics.
If a Catholic university has little to say about the common good of
political societies, or the distribution of wealth promoted by various
economic systems, or the notion of beauty in the fine arts and in
liturgy, or human freedom as understood by contemporary social sciences,
then it was unclear to us what might be distinctive about Catholic
However, it seemed increasingly unlikely that these broader issues and
contexts would arise without the development of interdisciplinary
programs committed to their sustained investigation.
Q: Do you believe that Catholic Studies programs produce sectarianism on
campuses and allow other academic departments, such as theology, to shed
their Catholic identity?
Briel: It has always been the case that only a small minority of faculty
at Catholic universities have systematically engaged the complex
intellectual search for a unity of knowledge presupposed by a Catholic
view of reality.
In the past, this task was largely carried out by the religious
communities that founded and sustained most Catholic colleges and
universities. Their communal conversations and shared scholarship
established a broad framework and context for the institution as a
whole. The decline in numbers and influence of these religious
communities has left a large void in Catholic higher education.
It became clear to us that the work of these communities needed to be
sustained by a now more voluntary and diverse group of lay scholars
committed to an ongoing interdisciplinary reflection on the integrity of
Catholic life and thought. They too would necessarily constitute a
relatively small minority of the faculty at large.
It seemed to us that Catholic universities will continue to depend
heavily on the existence of such communities of faculty whose work might
serve as a sign and catalyst within the university as a whole.
At the same time, as Pope John Paul II has noted, all departments have
their own contribution to make to the idea of the Catholic university.
The existence of Catholic Studies programs does not diminish the
importance of those contributions. In this sense, Catholic Studies
programs may be an indispensable but insufficient response to the need
for renewal in Catholic higher education.
The most successful Catholic Studies programs have also developed
campuswide initiatives including faculty development seminars and
symposia, public lectures, grant programs for course development and
scholarship, team-taught courses and joint degree programs linking
various university departments and schools to the interdisciplinary work
of Catholic Studies.
The largest programs have developed centers of institutes to develop and
sustain these broader programs. Among the largest and most comprehensive
of these centers are the Centers for Catholic Studies at St. Thomas and
Seton Hall, the Institute for Catholic Studies at John Carroll and the
Institute for the Study of Catholic Culture and Tradition at Loyola
University, New Orleans.
Q: How does Catholic Studies contribute to the intellectual and cultural
life of a Catholic university? Could these programs offer anything to
Briel: Catholic Studies reminds the rest of the university, Catholic,
private or state, of the comprehensiveness and integrity of the Catholic
intellectual tradition at a time in which there is a tendency to view
Catholic life and thought as a series of disconnected assertions and
The Center for Catholic Studies at St. Thomas has sponsored a variety of
weeklong summer seminars in which faculty from across the university
have gathered to discuss the Catholic identity of the university,
management education in a Catholic university, the implications of James
T. Burtchaell's "The Dying of the Light" and Philip Gleason's
"Contending with Modernity," the relations of theology and the
natural sciences, and the Church and the Holocaust.
We have found that faculty are rarely indifferent to these questions but
they lack both time and a common vocabulary with which to engage them.
In addition, we developed Aspen [Institute] style seminars in which
faculty from specific schools and colleges such a law, business, social
work and education come together to discuss the relevance of Catholic
thought for their professional development and teaching.
In 1997, we developed a new quarterly, Logos: A Journal of Catholic
Thought and Culture, in order to explore the rich interdisciplinary
character of Catholic thought. We developed the John A. Ryan Institute
for Catholic Social Thought to disclose more directly the importance of
the Church's social teaching.
The institute has sponsored a series of international symposia on
Catholic social thought and business including the September 2001
conference on "Work as the Key to the Social Question,"
co-sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, the
Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan and the Catholic
University of Leuven. The institute also sponsors a number of programs
on campus and in the local area.
In 2001, we created a graduate program in Catholic Studies which in its
second year enrolls over 40 students. In 1997, we developed a Catholic
Studies program at the Angelicum in Rome and we later purchased and
renovated a residence in the city to house our students who spend a
semester or full year studying in the faculty of social sciences at the
The center sponsors a wide variety of lectures, book discussions,
student and faculty retreats, and conferences designed to enhance the
Catholic intellectual tradition of the university. Similar programs can
be found at in private and state universities. One of the most prominent
of these programs is the Lumen Christi Institute at the University of
Q: How have Catholic Studies programs been shaped by "Ex Corde
Briel: In "Ex Corde Ecclesiae," Pope John Paul II stressed the
importance of recovering the Catholic university's traditional emphasis
on the unity of knowledge and on the ultimate complementarity of faith
and reason. This has clearly influenced the development of Catholic
The Pope also stressed the importance of the search for meaning, not
simply "the meaning of scientific and technical research, of social
life and of culture," but also "the very meaning of the human
In our own time, this task will require a sustained interdisciplinary
reflection and collaboration at a moment in which the increasing
specialization of disciplines threatens to turn the university into what
Francis Cardinal George once famously called a "high class trade
The Holy Father's emphasis on the Catholic university as a "primary
and privileged place for a fruitful dialogue between the Gospel and
culture" has also had a significant impact on the character of
Catholic Studies programs.
Q: Does the interest in Catholic Studies and the growth of new Catholic
colleges signal a resurgence in Catholic intellectual life?
Briel: I think it is the case that the interest in Catholic Studies and
similar programs around the country does signify a resurgence of
Catholic intellectual life. We confront a new generation of students
which is less cynical about life and who are clearly committed to a
reflection on the meaning of their lives and the wider societies in
which they live and work.
They are no longer satisfied with an accumulation of information but
rather understand their studies in the context of a search for wisdom.
At the same time, they are often very practical and are committed to
pre-professional studies of one kind or another within this larger
context of the search for meaning.
They tend to have broad interests, unusual maturity and a great capacity
for friendship. They have a strong sense of personal calling and they
are seeking a kind of intellectual fellowship in a community of study
and conviction in which to discern their larger vocation. I must say
that they represent a remarkable promise for the future of Catholicism
in the United States. ZE03032722